Hong Kongers look to the exits as China imposes security law

Cathy Ho and her four siblings have had enough of Hong Kong.

Months of pro-democracy protests in the Asian financial hub last year followed by China’s imposition on Tuesday of a draconian security law on the territory have convinced them the time has come to escape the turmoil by immigrating to other countries.

Ms Ho, a retired English teacher, hopes to join a UK government plan to grant almost 3m Hong Kong residents a “pathway to future citizenship” that London said would be triggered by the security law.

“Of course, it is very sad and heartbreaking to separate from each of our family members and move to different countries because of the dire political situation,” she said. “But do we have a choice?” 

The rapid erosion of the autonomy promised to Hong Kong after its handover from the UK to China in 1997 has spooked many residents. The city was supposed to enjoy freedoms on par with many western countries for 50 years.

But the new law will give Beijing sweeping powers to jail Hong Kongers for life for crimes ranging from secession and subversion to collaborating with foreign powers to endanger national security. Critics said the territory’s cherished rule of law was under attack.

Immigration consultants said there was greater panic among Hong Kongers following news of the law than after the anti-government protests last year.

“It was almost like a tsunami,” said Tina Cheng at Midland Immigration Consultancy. The agency received 800 inquiries in May, double the one-month peak of 400 during 2019.

Hong Kong does not track outward emigration. But applications for certificates of no criminal conviction, a document used for visa applications and adoptions, jumped 40 per cent in 2019 from a year earlier to more than 33,000. 

Andrew Lo, founder of immigration consultancy Anlex, said there had been waves of interest in emigration among Hong Kongers over the past 30 years, such as after the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing in 1989, but this time was different.

“In 1989, it was only people with money who were planning to go as they were worried about their wealth not being protected,” said Mr Lo. “Last year, it was mostly the working class wanting to leave. This year, everyone wants to leave.”

Ms Ho holds a British National (Overseas) passport awarded by the UK to those born before the 1997 handover. She is not classed as a British citizen and is only permitted to stay in the UK for up to six months. But the UK government is examining offering 12-month working visas for this group that could be continually extended until citizenship is granted.

Anti-government protests outside government headquarters in Hong Kong in September. The demonstrations and the security law have spurred interest in emigration. Anti-government protests and the security law have spurred interest in emigration © AFP via Getty Images

Ms Ho’s three sisters and sister-in-law plan to move to Taiwan. A brother, who opposes the anti-government protests, wants to settle in the UK on an investment visa to provide greater stability for his children. 

“I think the atmosphere in Hong Kong is really suffocating. I feel choked with rage when I am in Hong Kong,” said Ms Ho’s sister, Carmen.

Some have much bigger plans. Ivan Ko, a real estate entrepreneur, is leading negotiations between a group of 90 Hong Kong businesspeople and professionals with countries such as Ireland to set up an “international charter city” to house as many as 50,000 Hong Kong immigrants.

Mr Ko told the Financial Times he envisioned a situation in which Hong Kong investors would develop infrastructure, biotech or manufacturing businesses in the new city in return for financial concessions and a path to citizenship.

Other Hong Kongers are trying to get their money into offshore accounts in case the US punishes China with sanctions for imposing the security law. Teresa, a civil servant who did not want to reveal her full name, recently opened two bank accounts in the UK.

“If we add [US] sanctions, I think the probability is this will accelerate outflows,” said Teresa.

Tom, a 35-year-old working in finance, said he had shifted 80 per cent of his net assets into foreign currencies. “[The national security law] looks pretty extreme for us. We are thinking [about] whether there will be other more extreme measures coming up,” he said.

One YouTube how-to guide on getting capital out of Hong Kong has attracted more than 384,000 views. The channel’s host teaches viewers to open overseas accounts using virtual banking platforms such as Monzo and N26 or to get money out by buying US securities from online brokerages.

Foreign currency deposits in rival Asian financial centre Singapore jumped 44 per cent year on year to a record S$62bn ($44.4bn) in April, an acceleration of a trend that began in 2019 as anti-government protests in Hong Kong intensified. 

On Wednesday, the Monetary Authority of Singapore said that reports “that there were large flows of deposits from Hong Kong to Singapore were incorrect”. 

But Alicia Garcia-Herrero, chief Asia-Pacific economist at Natixis, said while it was impossible to ascertain how much of the money leaving Hong Kong was flowing to its regional rival, “part of that is clearly going to Singapore”.

Pro-Beijing figures have criticised the rush for the exits in Hong Kong, whether in the form of capital flight or emigration. 

CY Leung, former Hong Kong chief executive, highlighted the high death toll from Covid-19 in the UK. He joked that the “sunset empire” should provide return tickets alongside residency rights for BNO holders to allow Hong Kongers to escape further outbreaks in the UK.